Month: January 2017

A valuable experience at the International Slavery Museum

By Rebecca Nelson, Wilberforce Institute

Alongside being part of the Antislavery Usable Past project, my PhD experience also includes academic training with the Heritage Consortium. This comprises a group of Northern universities, committed to enhancing applicable heritage skills among students with related research interests. This has worked very well with my interest in museums and their engagement with and interpretation of antislavery across Britain. Part of the assessment for this training was a placement, which I wanted to do somewhere that had real relevance for my research – what better place than Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (ISM)?

I worked at the museum for nearly a month, a relatively short time in the scheme of my PhD, but things move fast in the museum environment and I feel that during that time I had a wealth of opportunities which enabled me to get to see first-hand the work the ISM does, the challenges it faces, and to get to know the team behind it all. My experiences included conducting research to answer visitor enquiries, proof reading text for new exhibitions, transcribing letters from British plantation owners in Guiana from the 1780s, and adding new museum acquisitions to the digital database.

It was with one of these new acquisitions that I felt I had the most challenging experience in terms of my thinking about museums, and my skills working with historic objects – but also the most rewarding. Shortly before I arrived on placement, the museum had received a parcel of newly acquired items for the collection, featuring a range of items relating to slavery and the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. Included in these were twenty copies of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the weekly newspaper published by the Black Panther Party between the 1960s and the 1980s. At their peak, the newspapers had a global readership of some 300,000 and were written with the main aim of informing, educating and organising the Party’s members. In each issue there were articles about violent clashes between the Party and their opponents, plans for further aggressive action, and reports from trials and sentencing hearings, usually concerning the party leaders. There were also party rules, membership forms and adverts for merchandise.


Rebecca working with the newspapers

At first, I found these quite difficult to read. Usually I feel a sense of detachment towards museums objects, but the newspapers were tough – strongly worded, and accompanied with graphic images – and I struggled to imagine how these items could be made accessible to the museum’s audience. On second reading though, I started to notice there was another side to these newspapers. The Party operated a wide-ranging social improvement programme, ensuring education facilities for black children, a nationwide free breakfast effort and buses for those without transport. Their call for black communities across America was “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace”, absolutely essential rights we would argue now – perhaps it was the methods utilised by the Party which has led to their ambivalent historical record.

Cataloguing these items gave me a chance to reflect on the role of the International Slavery Museum, and of museums in general. Clearly the ISM is interested in exploring, engaging with and encouraging its visitors to think about legacies of slavery – this directly applies to the circumstances which facilitated the rise of the Black Panther Party and formed the motivation for all of their work. Museums have an essential role in preserving all history, not just the parts that are easily understood. To have a full understanding of the past, for academics and the general public, it is essential that items like these are kept somewhere. Museums then can facilitate a safe space for engagement with these items, in a proper historical context, surrounded by people who can offer further advice and support as necessary. As clichéd as it may sound, there is always more than one side to the story, and museums must seek to offer that in whatever capacity – no matter how difficult, emotionally or politically. It is their duty, and particularly so for the ISM which defines itself as a socially responsible institution, to work with objects like this to enhance both our understanding of the past, and the present.

Slavery and Public History Workshop

We are delighted to invite you to a workshop in Liverpool on Wednesday 8 February 2017 examining the ways in which the history of slavery and its abolition have been explored within public history.

Museums, country houses, the streets we walk down and the places we call home – they all have stories to tell us about the past. The workshop programme will explore how different kinds of public historians and organisations have represented Britain’s historic role in both slavery and its abolition. Throughout the day we will hear from museum and heritage professionals, community historians and academics – there will be plenty of opportunities to ask them questions and join in the debate. There will be an open session for people to discuss new projects and ideas giving participants a chance to see how we might help each other and get involved. A walking tour of Liverpool will allow participants to see first hand how the history of slavery has shaped the city of Liverpool.

Registration is free and lunch and refreshments will be provided.

This event is funded by the British Academy and is a partnership between the International Slavery Museum, the Antislavery Usable Past project and the University of Nottingham.

Historians Against Slavery Conference 2017


In October 2017, Historians Against Slavery will hold its biennial conference outside of the United States for the first time, at the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool. The two-day conference – ‘Using History to Make Slavery History’ – will mark the 10th Anniversary of the ISM as well as Black History Month 2017. It is co-hosted by Historians Against Slavery, the ISM, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (University of Liverpool) and the Antislavery Usable Past project.

Connecting past with present, we will deepen dialogue and collaboration between scholars, teachers, activists and community representatives, and build coalitions for antislavery scholarship and activism. Our panels, workshops and plenary sessions will bring together a distinguished body of leading scholars, museum professionals and antislavery activists from around the world, reflecting on cutting-edge scholarship and debating practical examples of how history can inform contemporary efforts to end the enslavement of 46 million people worldwide.

Registration for the conference is free and includes lunch on both days. Conference attendees are responsible for transportation, lodging and evening meals. We will announce speakers in March 2017.

Historians Against Slavery is a community of scholar-activists who contribute research and historical context to today’s antislavery movement, in order to inspire and inform activism and to develop collaborations that empower such efforts. Based in the US with an 800-strong membership, it launched a UK chapter in 2016.

The International Slavery Museum opened in August 2007 during the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. By 2016 it had welcomed nearly 4 million visitors. It is the only museum of its kind to look at aspects of historical and contemporary slavery as well as being an international hub for resources on human rights issues. It is located in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, at the centre of a World Heritage site and only yards away from the dry docks where 18th-century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out.

The Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS) was founded in 2006 by National Museums Liverpool and the University of Liverpool to collaborate with international and local communities of scholars researching slavery, abolition and their legacies ahead of the opening of the International Slavery Museum on 23 August 2007. It supports and shares leading research about human enslavement and its legacies, and works together with other universities and organisations to develop scholarly and public activities related to slavery in its historical and contemporary manifestations.